How does the essay "Aiding Impoverished Gentlewomen: Power and Class in Emma" by Beth Fowkes Tobin illuminate Marxist literary theory in Emma by Jane Austen?
Excerpt from "Aiding Impoverished Gentlewomen : Power and Class in Emma" by Beth Fowkes Tobin
"Ruth Perry argues that the capitalization of the hand industries--'the arranging of industry by middlemen who hired labor and sold product'--created the need for larger work places and a more consolidate work force, both of which contributes to pushing women out of the work force and into a life of leisure (38). Perry also argues that as women lost their roles as producers in the economy, they also lost important legal rights, such as the right to inherit land and ... belongings ..., the right as married women to engage in transactions ... and the right to manage their own property, since this became the husband's on marriage (30-33).
"Losing access to skilled trades and professions left eighteenth-century women entirely dependent on men for their livelihood, ...." (Tobin 476)
Marxist theory explores the ideas of socio-economic oppression and, its antithesis, socio-economic power from the perspective and within the framework of economic base and superstructure. In other words, while some other criticisms (e.g., Feminism) look for meaning, societal understanding and authorial intent through things like gender roles and historical background, Marxist theory looks for these things through the "lens" of economic relationships and the locus of economic power.
Tobin discusses the the concepts of class and power in Emma through this lens: economic relationships and the locus of economic power. Thus Tobin is exploring Marxist ideology in the narrative. Thus her conclusions can be said to illuminate Marxist literary theory as applied to Emma.
The quote recorded above demonstrates Tobin's working premise: Women were disempowered by stripping away their valid contributions to production and to the economy, which came via their participation in cottage industry in which textile and dairy and wood working production etc was undertaken. The demand for a greater quantity of product caused the demand for greater work space and, as a result, this demand separated, or divided, the male work force from the women's work force--and consequently the whole fabric of social life--leaving women unemployed at home since duties continued to include child rearing and food preparation.
[There is some contradiction as to what socio-economic group of women Tobin is speaking of, which she labels middle class, since it is unclear that the small middle class of the time would have conducted home industry, and it is further unclear that this dislocated group of women, once separated from the work force, would have risen in "leisure" to become "gentlewomen."]
Emma has a special responsibility to assist and protect women who are economically vulnerable and socially disadvantaged. [...] her match-making activity [for Harriet] is ... an abuse of [Emma's] social and economic powers. (Tobin)
Tobin's argument is summarized in this quotation. Tobin shows Emma to be characterized by Austen as a woman who neglects her economic power and responsibility toward "distressed gentlewomen" by leaving her social, economic and charitable responsibilities unfulfilled. This casts Austen's opening description of Emma, as having a little too much her own way, in terms of Marxism as an abuser of the dominant ideology that supports the economic base superstructure that, in this case, safeguards the downtrodden from economic oppression. In thus asserting Emma's role and neglect, Tobin takes a unique tact and places Emma squarely among the ranks of the locus of economic power, a dominant role she would have occupied before the separation of men's and women's workforces.